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Thursday, November 19, 2009, 12:50 pm PT (03:50 pm ET)

Google outlines Chrome OS plans for netbooks

Google hosted a technical introduction to its new Chrome OS today, which it expects to officially launch on new netbooks by the end of 2010.

First unveiled as a initiative in July, Google's Chrome OS was broadly outlined to be a fast launching, secure, stripped down operating system aimed at replacing Windows on netbooks.

The web browser as an operating system

Dashing any hopes that Chrome OS would become a sophisticated operating system to directly rival Mac OS X and Windows 7, Google outlined today that its Chrome OS will simply be its Chrome browser optimized to run on a specialized Linux kernel. All apps on the new systems will be web applications launched within their own sandbox. There will be no native apps.

Google first focused attention on the traction it has gained with its Chrome web browser, noting that the fast new WebKit browser recent exceeded 40 million users worldwide. Net Applications says Chrome grabbed a 3.8% share of global browser use in October, establishing it solidly in fourth place behind Safari, Firefox and the Internet Explorer after just short of a year of availability.

The company says it will release an official Mac version of the Chrome browser by the end of this year, and is working on a Linux version that will serve as the foundation of the Chrome OS. Essentially, the "new OS" will be the Chrome browser running on a stripped down Linux core.

Similar to Android, which is also hosted on the Linux kernel, the platform itself will not be the typical Linux GNOME/KDE X11 desktop but rather the Chrome browser itself. While Android is primarily a modified mobile Java platform, Chrome OS will be a web platform based on HTML5.

The result will be a broad platform for HTML5 web apps that can run on Windows PCs, Macs, iPhones and other smartphones with HTML5 savvy browsers, as well as new dedicated hardware devices running the Chrome OS. Google said it has been working hard on making web apps work as well as native apps, with access to system resources such as the GPU for fast graphics.

Chrome OS


Introduction to Chrome OS

In its event, Google focused on speed, simplicity and security as core features of the Chrome OS plan. "We want Chrome OS to be blazingly fast, basically instant-on," said Sundar Pichai, Google’s VP of Product Management.

"In Chrome OS, every application is a web application," Pichai said. "There are no native applications. That gives us simplicity. It's just a browser with a few modifications. And all data in Chrome OS is in the cloud.

"This is key, we want all of personal computing to work this way. If you lose your machine, you just get a new one, and it works. With security, because everything is a web app, we can do different things. No system is ever fully secure. With Chrome OS there's no user install binaries, so we can see bad things easier. We run completely inside the browser security model."

From startup, Google demonstrated Chrome OS booting to its login screen in 7 seconds, with another three seconds to load a web application. And while the user interface is still in flux, Google is working to keep things simple by retaining most of the look and feel of Chrome browser, adding only "panels" as lightweight windows that don't move, useful for things like chat buddy lists and media playback.

Pichai referred to Microsoft's web based Office as the killer app for Chrome OS, eliciting laughs from the audience. He also demonstrated YouTube playback and viewing graphics and PDFs within browser tabs.

Inside the Chrome OS

Matthew Papakipos, the engineering director for Chrome OS, took the stage next to present the new operating system's technical side. "We want this to feel much more like a television than a computer," he said, noting that Chrome OS appliances will all be based on solid-state storage (like the iPhone) rather than using mechanical hard disks (like many more conventional netbooks currently do).

Papakipos said that the Chrome OS gains boot speed by cutting out lots of the conventional startup process common to PCs, including a hardware search for available drives and other devices, and the initiation of background services. The system launches from a read only boot partition with "Verified Boot," and automatically updates itself with any available security patches.

This automatic installation of web-based software is similar to Palm's webOS and updates for Windows that occur by default, and a marked departure from systems that allow the user to exercise control over when and how their software is updated, as Apple does on the Mac and iPhone. Google has already raised some eyebrows by automatically loading updates for desktop PC software without telling the user, a practice that it has since backpedaled on in response to user complaints.

Individual web apps are handled as sandboxed applications, with each running in its own process unique to its browser tab. User data is all stored encrypted, so if the device is lost or stolen it can't be easily recovered. All data is also synced to the cloud, so it can be resynced to a new machine if the system itself is ever irretrievably lost.

Pichai returned to the stage to wrap up that Google will be working with hardware makers to develop new devices capable of running the Chrome OS, and noted that it will not be possible for existing Linux or Windows netback users to upgrade to the new OS; it will only be made available on new hardware.

He also noted that Google plans to back "slightly larger netbooks with full sized keyboards and big trackpads" rather than the types of machines currently available.

The potential impact of Chrome OS

On a conceptual level, the Chrome OS works a lot like the iPhone: rather than trying to be a conventional, general purpose PC, it supplies a stripped down experience on tightly customized hardware. Unlike the iPhone, which uses a mobile-optimized version of Apple's desktop Mac OS X, Google is floating Chrome OS as a platform for running web applications exclusively.

This makes Chrome OS more like Adobe's Flash Lite, albeit based on HTML5 rather than Flash. Like Flash, Google will have to figure out how to translate the desktop browser experience into mobile devices. Web content is already largely targeted to users with desktop-sized displays, so advancing either Flash or HTML5 on the desktop and mobile devices at the same time is a challenge.

Apple's solution to this quandary on the iPhone was to develop a browser experience that made desktop-centric content readily viewable, while also offering an iPhone-optimized web experience for developers who wanted to target the iPhone directly. While web access was and is critically important to the success of the iPhone, Apple has gained even more attention for its native SDK, which allows developers to sell self contained apps to iPhone users independent from the web browser.

Apple has largely ignored the conventional netbook market, leaving it to PC makers. Microsoft first embraced netbooks with a low cost version of Windows XP designed to suffocate the netbook market's initial rapid adoption of Linux. However, after witnessing the cannibalization of low end Windows PCs and notebooks by cheap netbooks, Microsoft outlined plans this summer to raise netbook prices using Windows 7.

A new low-cost push by Google to introduce another wave of even cheaper, stripped down devices running its web-centric, Linux-based operating system next year will likely sabotage Microsoft's efforts "readjust those prices north" as Steve Ballmer hoped. Instead, the mass market for low end devices will be dragged down further, forcing Microsoft to consider abandoning embedded web-based devices along with its music player and smartphone product lines being crushed by Apple's iPod and iPhone.

The remaining question is how will Chrome OS devices impact mainstream desktop PCs and Macs. Apple has already differentiated its Mac lineup to focus on iLife and Pro Apps that can't really be delivered using web apps. This has enabled the company to remain profitable despite the cutthroat pricing competition among PC makers on the low end.

However, for the vast majority of Windows PCs being used primarily to browse the web, access email, edit documents and other tasks that are already possible and popular to do via web apps, the arrival of Google's Chrome OS could result in a major makeover of the PC market.

This all happened before

This isn't the first time Microsoft's dominant position has been threatened by stripped down devices. Sun attempted to positioned Java-based terminals against Windows PCs in the late 90s, along with a wave of other efforts to deliver thin clients or "NCs" (network computers) as cloud-centric alternatives to the conventional desktop PC.

Apple's iMac was birthed from an effort within the company to create an NC, and it became one of the few non-Windows PCs to ever gain traction. Other attempts include 3Com's QNX-based Audrey, a web browsing appliance designed to sync up to the company's Palm OS devices, and Be Inc.'s effort to turn its BeOS into an internet appliance, which it licensed to Sony for use in the eVilla in 2001.

Customers didn't get enthused about web-only appliances a decade ago, but things might change with Google's efforts to push HTML5 as a strong foundation for more functional web apps. Today's users are familiar with Google's Gmail, Gtalk, Docs, and other web-based apps, so floating new hardware capable of running these kinds of tools may be far more successful than previous attempts.

Google has also gained the interest of PC hardware makers with Android, enabling it to muscle into what has long been turf controlled by Microsoft. By offering developers a free alternative to Windows licensing, Google will likely find a variety of hardware makers interested in pursing Chrome OS devices.

One aspect of its assault on Windows and Windows Mobile that Google has been pushing is the idea of sharing its ad revenues with hardware licensees when they agree to its terms for bundling Google's ad-supported apps, enabling it to offer its core operating system software for "less than free."

Without Google's massive leverage in web advertising and paid search, Microsoft won't be able match Google's "less than free" terms. Whether that will result in a complete restructuring of the PC market remains to be seen, but that question should get answered over the next two years.